The conversation came in September 2010. Charles Woodson had just signed a contract extension with the only team that had truly wanted him four years earlier in free agency – the same team he had no interest in joining. So much had changed during that time, though, and now he was hoping that he’d end his career in the NFL’s tiniest outpost.
“It’s been a long journey. Not only being here, in Green Bay, but just a long career that started in Oakland,” the Green Bay Packers cornerback said that Thursday afternoon, roughly five months before he’d help the team to the Super Bowl XLV title. “The mission at this point is to retire here. It’s a big deal.”
For Woodson, who had three years left on his existing contract at the time, to say such a thing was significant. The story of his transformation had been told and retold frequently – and would be again and again during that week in North Texas in advance of the franchise winning its 13th championship – but remained compelling. He’d gone from being viewed as a malcontent in his final days in Oakland, to a hard-headed, fiercely independent new guy who was slow to buy into coach Mike McCarthy’s program upon his arrival, to team leader and elder statesman.
“Back then (in Oakland), I really didn't look this far. I was really just enjoying the moment, enjoying being young, enjoying being in the NFL. I just had a great deal of fun, I really did. I can't say that I looked this far ahead to being in this role, to being at the opposite end of the spectrum and being closer toward the end than the beginning,” Woodson would say. “I think I've grown as a person, and I think as a man, that's what you have to do. You have to grow.
“There was a perception I was a bad guy, that I couldn’t play anymore, that I had already lost a step. Nobody wanted to touch me. Green Bay, for whatever reason, they did some homework and decided they could use me. They kept calling, I kept ignoring. I had a lot of people telling me why I didn’t want to play in Green Bay, but I didn’t know why. It took me going there to understand it.”
And now, he’s leaving, a salary-cap casualty Friday, when the Packers cut him to save roughly $9.4 million in cap room. The team informed the veteran safety of its plans on Friday morning, and the move became official when the club announced the move Friday afternoon.
“We had a good run,” Woodson said in a text message Friday afternoon.
"We are grateful for all that Charles has given to the Green Bay Packers over the past seven years,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said in a statement. “He has been an integral part of the Packers’ success and our Super Bowl title in 2010 would not have been possible without his contributions. A once-in-a-generation talent as a player, he is also a great leader and ambassador for the organization off the field. Charles will always be a member of the Packers family and we look forward to his eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We wish him and his family all the best."
The fourth pick in the 1998 NFL Draft after winning the Heisman Trophy in his final season at the University of Michigan, Woodson spent his first eight seasons in Oakland, where he earned four Pro Bowl berths, intercepted 17 passes, forced 14 fumbles, had 5.5 sacks and scored two defensive touchdowns. In seven seasons in Green Bay, Woodson was also selected to four Pro Bowls, but his other numbers – 38 interceptions, 11.5 sacks and 10 touchdowns – exploded.
Woodson started all 100 games he played for the Packers during his seven seasons in Green Bay, twice earning first-team All-Pro recognition from The Associated Press (2009, 2011) and earning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year from AP in 2009, when he posted a career-high nine interceptions (tied for the NFL lead), along with four forced fumbles, two sacks and 21 pass breakups. He became only the second player in franchise history to win the award, joining Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White (1998), another transformative free-agent signee.
Woodson holds Packers franchise records for the most defensive touchdowns with 10 (nine interceptions, one fumble return) and the most interception returns for touchdowns with nine. He is tied for No. 2 in league history with 11 career interception returns for touchdowns, trailing only Rod Woodson (12). Woodson’s 38 interceptions are tied for No. 4 in franchise history
He is a likely Pro Football Hall of Fame player, although his agent, Carl Poston, made it clear that his client has no plans to retire.
“He sounds like he has a lot of football left,” Poston told NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, who quoted the agent on his Twitter account. “He'd like to go play for a contender, win another Super Bowl. He caught that bug."
Last season, Woodson also caught the injury bug. Having missed only three games in his previous six seasons in Green Bay – and only one due to injury – Woodson missed nine games after suffering a broken collarbone on Oct. 21 at St. Louis. He returned to action for the team’s two playoff games, an NFC Wild Card victory over Minnesota and a season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss at San Francisco.
Woodson played a total of 629 snaps in the regular season and playoffs. He finished the season with 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one interception and five pass break-ups in regular-season play and had 12 tackles and one pass defended in the playoffs.
After the loss to the 49ers, when Woodson was asked about the possibility of not returning, he replied, “I don’t know. Those decisions will be made down the road. I don’t know how that works out. But I'm going to play football, if that's what you're asking.”
By releasing Woodson, the Packers save $9.4 million in salary-cap space for 2013. Set to turn 37 in October, Woodson had two years remaining on the five-year, $55 million extension he signed in September 2010, a deal included $21 million in advances and bonuses. Woodson’s 2013 and 2014 base salaries were each $6.5 million, and he was scheduled to receive $2.5 million roster bonuses in the spring of each year as well.
Speaking in December, before returning to action, Woodson was asked if he would play in 2013 and replied, “Oh, absolutely.” Asked if he expected it to be in Green Bay, he answered, “Until somebody tells me I’m not, this is where I plan on playing.
“I haven’t had that conversation. If that conversation comes around, it comes around. But as far as I know is, anything that I expect is that I’ll be a Green Bay Packer. That’s all I have to say about that.”
That has now changed. The conversation came Friday, when Woodson met with coach Mike McCarthy and Thompson thanked him for his service and bid him farewell. Poston told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that the team never broached the idea of bringing Woodson back at a reduced salary.
Whatever happens, Woodson leaves Green Bay a vastly different person than when he arrived, when McCarthy confessed that Woodson had “a rough start” in 2006.
“It took a while. But once I came around, I came around hard,” Woodson said that day he signed his extension. “It was a gradual thing, the more people that I met around here in the community and just throughout Wisconsin, and just playing here with the guys that we have and the organization and the way they take care of their players. Once I realized what I had here in Green Bay, then it was a done deal from there.
“When I signed the deal here, I don’t know if I even really thought past three years. Maybe. I don’t know. Never to the point where I was going to be signing an extension here in Green Bay. When I first got here, I figured I’d be here maybe a couple years, then I’d be somewhere else.
“But life takes you down some different roads sometimes, roads that you can’t explain. And this has turned out to be a great road.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.